Consider the following scenario:

  • In a remote isolated village, there is a family with a sick infant, who desperately and urgently needs a specific type of medicine. They have no way of procuring it in time, since the closest pharmacy is 500 Km away.
  • There is an old man in the village who possess some of this medicine (he uses it recreationally, or maybe he just likes to collect exotic medicines). He has obtained this medicine with money he earned with his hard work and his unique talents as a local craftsman.
  • He refuses however to part with the medicine. It is rightfully his, and he really doesn't care about the infant, as he is not related to her or her family in any way.
  • The only way that the infant will survive is if she takes that medicine within 24 hours, and the only way that will happen is if the old man hands it over.

The dilemma: Are the local authorities (the local sheriff, the village council, whatever...) justified in forcing the old man to hand over his medicine? On one hand it is the only way to save the child, on the other hand this would be an infringement of the rights and freedom of the old man. Most people would argue that yes, the local authorities are justified, but I am interested in the strong Libertarian position.

Given how much importance Libertarians like Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand place on personal freedom and choice, and how they consider any form of taxation or government coercion or control of resources to be morally wrong, how would they respond to the dilemma? Are the authorities justified or not in forcing the man to give his medicine to the infant?

Alternative scenario: The old man is willing to part with the medicine, but at an exorbitant price (like the entire family's holdings and their income for the next 10 years). Per Nozick, Rand (or Milton Friedman), in this case, are the authorities justified in forcing the old man to sell it for a reasonable price (whatever that is)?

  • 1
    Alternative scenario: The police tells the man that he can do as he pleases, but if the child is hurt because he doesn't help he'll go to jail.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 19, 2016 at 21:50
  • Alternative scenario: The police tells the man that he can do as he pleases, but the police will not protect him if the child's father knocks on his door with a machete.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 19, 2016 at 21:52
  • @gnasher729 the old man going to jail is the same as what the gov does to tax evaders, so that would go against libertarian principles. Per Nozick (and I assume per Rand as well) the police has to protect the old man from bodily harm - in fact that's about the only thing that police are supposed to do. Aug 19, 2016 at 22:24
  • This is somewhat reminding me of Kohlberg's Heinz dillemma...
    – rus9384
    Jul 11, 2018 at 23:52

7 Answers 7


You should stop conflating people like Friedman with Ayn Rand. Friedman was far less consistent than Rand in his advocacy of freedom. So I'm going to address the sort of thing I think Rand would say. Also, Rand wasn't a libertarian in part because libertarianism is such a big tent that it includes people like Friedman who advocated anti-capitalist policies: Friedman advocated a negative income tax.

Your example talks about a poor village 500 km from a pharmacy, where a child will die if he doesn't get the medicine in 24 hours. There is an old man who owns some of the medicine but doesn't want to give it over. You ask whether the authorities should make the old man give it over.

I think there are several remarks one could make about this example.

Let's start by clear about what you're advocating. When the authorities do anything, those who disobey the authorities' orders may be killed. If the old man doesn't want to hand over the medicine and refuses to open his door the authorities may bash it down. If he tries to defend his property they may kill him. So anyone who says the authorities should take the medicine are staking a position that implies it is okay to kill the old man to save the child.

Now, suppose it really is the case that the old man doesn't want to hand over the medicine although he doesn't have much use for it. Well then his neighbours might think he is a bastard and they don't really want anything to do with him. So they might decline to trade with him. If they refuse to sell him food or clothing, then he might hand over the medicine. This doesn't require the authorities to do anything. Also, if the family concerned are good people, the neighbours might be willing to help them raise money to buy the drug.

And if nobody will lift a finger to persuade the old man or subsidise the family voluntarily, you should be interested in why this is the case. You should be very cautious about using force in that situation. Some families have bad traditions and do bad stuff like theft, assault, murder etc. Also, if they don't have enough wealth for a medicine, perhaps they are layabouts who don't take responsibility for their lives. Forcing people to subsidise such behaviour is a bad idea. See, for example, the description of Starnesville in "Atlas Shrugged".

Also, you don't say anything about the institutions in the village or the country in which is situated. For example, perhaps the village government or the central government is willing to pillage the belongings of anyone who is deemed wealthy. In that case, the old man might be endangering his life by supplying the medicine since this would indicate wealth. Such policies might also make it inadvisable for anyone to show off the wealth required to save the child, or to make that wealth in the first place.

  • 3
    Your reduction to a life-for-life trade is a straw man. One can allow for potential force by threat without allowing the authorities to kill anyone whenever they wish. Being guilty of depraved indifference does not carry a death sentence, or even a life sentence. So if the police killed someone in enforcing this law it would be deemed excessive force. But this law is still an effective way of coercing behavior.
    – user9166
    Aug 23, 2016 at 18:57
  • 1
    @jobermark I was originally thinking along the same lines that you were, but then I wondered, doesn't any form of law enforcement rely ultimately on the officer's willingness to carry out bodily harm? if that is the case, then alanf has a point. Aug 23, 2016 at 21:27
  • 1
    Still true, as I said above that "Anyone might die of anything at any time, so saying that giving them the right to tackle you or knock you out might end up in your death is a silly non-sequitur." Using violence as a tool is not condoning murder any more than using cars is -- they kill people when misused, too. This automatic square-wave way of thinking of violence is the hatred of masculinity gone mad.
    – user9166
    Aug 27, 2016 at 19:40
  • 1
    @alanf The initiation of the use of force simply isn't automatically wrong -- to presume that it is so, dishonors many hundreds more times men than women, so it may not be about masculinity, but it is sexist. Yes, the police have public permission to do it. This is irrelevant to whether permission to commit violence is automatically presumed to allow killing. Which is the main point of the objection that this is a straw-man argument.
    – user9166
    Aug 29, 2016 at 19:32
  • 1
    Even by relatively strict Kantian standards, if I am very angry and so are you, and no one can figure out who is right, we should be able to voluntarily have a fight. Someone would have to throw the first punch. So initiation of violence cannot always be wrong. The idea that something men have been doing naturally for ages is just always evil is sexist. Period.
    – user9166
    Aug 30, 2016 at 18:16

Hard line libertarians like Rand and Nozick would likely deflect and find some way not to answer this question with a direct answer. They could say that as a result of the local officials forcing the old man to give up his medicine, in the future the villagers are less likely to plan ahead and buy medicines for themselves, believing that in a worst case scenario they can rely on other's medicine to be given to them. In the next year, not just one but 3 babies get sick and the families ask the local officials to make the old man hand over some medicine. However as a result of what happened last time, the old man has decided not to restock his supply of medicine. The 3 babies die. If force hadn't been used in the first place the parents of the other babies would have been more likely to stock up in medicine and their deaths could have been avoided.

The majority of people would say that the old man should be coerced into handing over their medicine as it would have a minimal impact on his life while enabling a life to be saved, and that the family should afterwards replace his medicine. Hard line libertarians like Rand and Nozick believe that this kind of thinking will eventually lead to an authoritarian police state, as they see the world in black and white. Although I believe Rand and Nozick are both minarchists rather than anarchists which means they do believe that some coercion is okay - as long as it doesn't involve wealth redistribution.

  • 2
    Rand explicitly wrote about the ethics of emergencies, so it is false to say that she would avoid the question. If you are going to make claims like this, you should at least search her writings for the topic first. This is made particularly easy with Rand, since there is a published lexicon of her thought - see e.g., the entry on "emergencies".
    – Ben
    Jun 8, 2018 at 1:40

In general, an Objectivist would say that a government should not use force to take property from its owner and give it to another. This really reduces down to the old philosophical gotcha 'is it ok to steal bread if you're hungry', which reduces further to the question 'is it right to do wrong if you really want to?'

There are various libertarian defenses that could be offered to that seemingly harsh position... the medicine probably exists in the first place because of property rights, and the long term pain and suffering caused by a state that doesn't respect property rights is far greater than an individual child's death, and that societies rich in material possessions (due primarily to property rights and free trade) are actually far more likely to engage in benevolent charity... but those are not the key issue. The key issue is that taking property from one person is simply not something a state should have the power to do, regardless of justification.


Nobody can know what Rand or Nozick would have said, but here is what they should have said:

Suppose the medicine costs, say, $100, and that a healthy infant has a 1% chance of someday needing it. Then as long as there are functioning markets, one can insure against needing the medicine at a price of about $1 (maybe a bit more to cover administrative costs; the exact number doesn't matter).

The family, by virtue of choosing not to buy that insurance when the infant was healthy, revealed that they preferred a dollar to having the insurance.

If it's okay for the state to force old men to provide that insurance, then surely it's even better to force old men to give young families a dollar. That, after all, is what the young families seem to prefer.

So what's at issue here is not the rights/freedom/dignity of old men with medicine; it's the rights/freedom/dignity of young families with children. If we respect those family's choices, then we might or might not lobby for old men to give them money, but we surely won't lobby for old men to give them insurance that they value less.

  • 1
    The issue here is timing. Even if they had he insurance, would it automatically whisk them away to the nearest pharmacy? No. So there is no content in this argument relative to the question at hand.
    – user9166
    Aug 20, 2016 at 1:56
  • 1
    The argument that you think they should have said is rather stupid, so I wouldn't be surprised if that would be the argument that Rand would have made. Reading her books, she lives in a fantasy world where the heroes make no mistakes, and only the heroes count.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 22, 2016 at 21:34
  • 2
    @gnasher729 Random insults are not constructive. I don't like Rand either, but you can support that position with something other than name-calling and vague literary critique.
    – user9166
    Aug 23, 2016 at 19:01

Rand's thoughts on this issue can be gleaned from her published work on the ethics of what she called "lifeboat situations", where a person is placed in a situation where they can only survive by killing another. Rand regarded the notion that one should based one's moral philosophy on these extreme emergency situations as irrational, since these are situations that differ systematically from the ordinary conditions of human existence. Nevertheless, she addressed the general topic of ethics in emergencies in her essay The Ethics of Emergencies, and she addresses the more specific question of killing an innocent in a "lifeboat situation" in an answer to a question she is asked in Ayn Rand Answer: The Best of her Q&A.

As can be seen from reading this material, Rand's position on emergencies is that it is morally appropriate to help a stranger in an emergency so long as this does not entail a danger to oneself. In regard to extreme cases like the "lifeboat situation", she says that moral philosophy prescribes no rules of conduct, since the preliminary conditions of normal human functioning are absent. She regards either position ("I should kill him to live" or "I should refrain from killing him and die") as subjectively acceptable.

In regard to the situation you posit in your question, Rand would therefore view it as morally good for the old man to give up his medicine to help the child. If he nonetheless chose not to do so, she would regard the situation as being sufficiently different from the ordinary conditions of human existence that the use of force against the old man would not constitute a violation of the rules of morality. (Presumably she would require that one use the minimal use of force necessary to save the child - i.e., forcibly taking the old man's medicine but not killing him.)


The dilemma: Are the local authorities (the local sheriff, the village council, whatever...) justified in forcing the old man to hand over his medicine? On one hand it is the only way to save the child, on the other hand this would be an infringement of the rights and freedom of the old man. Most people would argue that yes, the local authorities are justified, but I am interested in the strong Libertarian position.

For that scenario I would say it would come down to property rights. Provided it is legitimately his property to begin with no one has a right to take it from him for any reason. If anyone were to take it by force it would be theft, even if they had a badge or special position in the government. Theft is never justified however it would be the case that someone steals it, accepting the full consequences of their actions of theft to possibly save the life of their infant.


Consequences Where government/societal based theft is common the historical precedence of human behavior is:

  • People hide/horde which makes it not available through shortage
  • People leave the are so it is not available regionally
  • People do not take the effort to make it in the first place

The fact that someone has a resource that someone has a need for is a normal condition of reality since all resources are scarce. This inherent scarcity of all resources is the very basis for Economics, who's very nature is to understand the principles of how resources are used, measure the effectiveness of resource distribution, and construct methods to distribute scarce resources.

The bottom line is someone will always want something else someone has, and a method of distributing resources should be used. From a philosophical perspective there is credence that the method of distribution should be a consistent way if it is to be a just method.

Alternative Means Nothing in the scenario prevents alternative means of getting that medicine. I would find it very difficult to create such a scenario, hence the strength of the argument for even the hard libertarian position. Here are the obvious objections people would raise:

  • Community Interdependence. The old many would have social pressure to give it to save the child so that his business is not boycotted by the town or people refuse to do business with him. Strong property rights is a driver being charitable with your neighbors that you also will depend on.

  • Personal Relationship. The parents can just ask for it, the old many is free to give it away and may likely do so. Provided the parents are on good terms with the old man he may give it do them. Strong property rights is a driver for strong personal relationships.

  • Charity. If they are upstanding members of the community, the community may help raise enough money to buy it at the old mans price so they have an equitable and voluntary free exchange. Strong property rights is a driver for good citizenship inherrant


Alternative pragmatic answer: The child's family steal the medicine. The child lives and the family take the legal consequences. The old man is ostracised and told to get a life. This happens all the time with big pharma. Give us megabucks or people in Africa can just die, what do we care? This is inhuman and unethical. Companies are entitled to a return on their investment. They are not entitled to a pound of flesh. In a democratic society, capitalism has to reasonably regulated.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .